Monday June 28 was a gruelling day for Boris Johnson. Days earlier, health secretary Matt Hancock had resigned for breaking coronavirus restrictions during an affair with an aide, and the political aftershocks were still reverberating. Instead of recuperating in his recently redecorated Downing Street flat with his wife Carrie that evening, the prime minister was driven to a Kensington townhouse for a discreet gathering with some of the wealthiest people in London.
Among those milling in the garden over drinks and canapés were key donors to the Conservative party, including host Rishi Khosla, a banker. Peter Cruddas, the online trading tycoon who gave the Tories $997,247 days after being elevated by Johnson to the House of Lords in 2020, was there, as was Howard Shore, the founder of Shore Capital who gave the party $498,623 this year.
These were some of the money men who had supported Johnson's rise to power. Many were also members of the secretive "Advisory Board," a hitherto unknown group of elite donors who enjoy frequent and direct access to the most powerful people in government.
Although Johnson was warmly received, those present say the donors boxed the prime minister's ears over the troubles in his cabinet as well as the economic direction of the country under his leadership. "They're fed up with all this state intervention," one party insider with knowledge of the discussion says. "The top donors are Thatcherite free marketeers, and they have no qualms about giving Boris a piece of their mind."
Johnson, as is often his way, told them what they wanted to hear: that he hadn't forgotten his closest supporters. And before he left for the night he vowed to press ahead with "freedom day" — the controversial lifting of most of England's Covid-19 restrictions on July 19.
The evening was not organised by Johnson. It was convened by an adept high-society operator installed by the prime minister to ensure the Tory party was bankrolled at the last election, is flush today and will be well into the future: Ben Elliot.
Elliot, who once described himself as a "willing slave to the stars", is best known for running Quintessentially, a "concierge" company that famously caters to the whims of the wealthy, from shipping a dozen albino peacocks to a party for Jennifer Lopez to airlifting elm tea bags to Madonna. The 45-year-old Etonian and son-in-law of rock star Steve Winwood told the FT in 2011 that securing services for his wealthy clients was all about "knowing the right people to contact for the right favour".
Under Elliot the Advisory Board has become the most desirable club in the Tory party, its members granted monthly access to Johnson or chancellor Rishi Sunak, according to people briefed on its activities. Conservative officials say it was set up before Johnson took power, but decline to say when. It does not officially exist on any party literature. One senior minister in David Cameron's administration says: "I've never heard of it."
Since July 2019, when Johnson appointed Elliot the Conservative party's co-chair, the impeccably connected nephew of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, has been at the centre of the operation to provide the cash to keep the Conservatives — the western world's most successful political party — in office. According to Tory officials, Elliot is also Johnson's counsellor, offering advice to the financially challenged prime minister. They meet regularly, duelling on the tennis or squash court.
Where Johnson, notoriously tight but always short of cash, has a tortured relationship with money, Elliot revels in connections with the wealthy. While Johnson's personal finances have grabbed the headlines, his friend Elliot has quietly transformed the party's money culture, bringing aspects of Quintessentially's model, so that ever-larger cash donations bring ever-greater access to the heart of government. It is a model that will be crucial to Johnson's ongoing political success. As the prime minister eyes the next election, which must be held by 2024, he needs Elliot to keep delivering.
One of Johnson's first appointments after becoming prime minister in July 2019 was to bring in Elliot as the Conservative party's money man. The Tory fundraising operation had atrophied over the three previous years of Theresa May's leadership, and preparations had to be made for a "Get Brexit Done" election, which ultimately took place in December 2019. In the first two weeks of that campaign the Tories raised a record $17.5m.
Elliot is 12 years Johnson's junior, but they have long moved in the same social circle. In the early 2000s, Elliot regularly played poker with Ben and Zac Goldsmith, wealthy environmentalists, at Crown London Aspinalls, a private gaming club in Mayfair. Johnson, who made the transition from freewheeling political columnist and commentator to Tory MP at about the same time, was also part of the black-tie Aspinall clique, according to one member of the set. Elliot says he never played poker with the future prime minister.
Damian Aspinall, son of the club's founder, runs an animal conservation charity that recently hired Johnson's wife Carrie as head of communications. The Goldsmith brothers' father, James, was a Eurosceptic financier. Risk-taking, Eton and Brexit bound the group together. "They are fiercely loyal to each other. They always look after each other," says a person with knowledge of the parties.
Elliot first demonstrated his usefulness to ambitious Tory politicians in 2016 when he acted as treasurer for Zac Goldsmith's unsuccessful London mayoral campaign. (Goldsmith is now an environment minister.) "Boris was so taken with how rich [Elliot] is and just how many rich people he knows," a friend of the prime minister says.
Elliot was known by his professional colleagues as "Mr Access All Areas" for his networking and favour-winning work at Quintessentially. Last year, a publicist from Chicago told the FT she was offered three tiers of Quintessentially membership starting at $16,953 a year up to $79,780 for "Quintessence" — a 13-month invite-only subscription that included dinner at Buckingham Palace, VIP packages to the Sundance and Cannes film festivals and a tennis tournament with Richard Branson on his private Caribbean island.
Elliot appears to have been deploying a similar model in the political arena since his elevation two years ago, offering access to Johnson in the place of luxury recreation. Described as effortlessly charming, Elliot will, for example, pitch potential donors in a "mockney" accent, adopting working-class patois, before following up with a steely approach. "He's very forceful," says one Conservative HQ insider, adding that he can be brusque with donors and Tory staff alike. "Ben squeezes the pips from the donors. His follow-ups for money are blunt, along the lines of 'You owe us the money, you promised us the money.' He's like a bailiff."
Johnson, by contrast, is widely seen by senior Tories as useless at raising money. Although his father Stanley worked for the European Commission and World Bank, the family's finances were chaotic. Johnson went to Eton College on a scholarship. "He was surrounded by really rich people, when his family was relatively poor," says one former colleague, who describes how the dynamic played out during the lavish Black and White Ball Tory fundraiser in February 2020. "He was meant to take to the stage with Ben Elliot to auction off tennis with them both." But the prime minister baulked, saying "I'll do the tennis but I won't do the auction". The source says Johnson "detests" asking for cash and is delighted to leave the fundraising work to Elliot.
Which has given Elliot great influence over the party's finances. Conservative officials from the David Cameron era admit that he has been better than them at raising money, but one says: "We were a bit more cautious about who we took money from."
Elliot's supporters deny this characterisation. Lord Leigh, a Tory treasurer, says, "Ben Elliot is doing a fantastic job. His hard work is a bedrock of success for the party and he is scrupulous and exacting in everything he does."
Friends say he is modernising the party, including opening a new Tory campaign office in Leeds and that he has excelled at bringing in more money from existing donors, rather than bringing in a raft of new ones. A Conservative spokesman said the party's donations were declared with the Electoral Commission and that fundraising was "a legitimate part of the democratic process".
While Elliot may have filled his party's coffers, he has learnt the dangers of getting too close to the prime minister's ramshackle personal finances. Downing St insiders say it is commonplace to hear the prime minister, a recently divorced and remarried father of six, complain about his money problems. "Occasionally you'd hear him say, 'I just can't afford to do this job,' " says one. "He needs a very high figure, just to get by."
In his last year before entering Number 10, Johnson earned more than $830,000, including his MP's salary. He could no longer write his weekly Daily Telegraph column, for which he was paid £548,391 a year. Book-writing projects such as Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius, a tome for which he received an advance of at least $175,491, were put on ice.
Jennifer Arcuri, who says she had a four-year affair with Johnson from 2012-2016, remembers him being very excited about his book deal. "I worked on four chapters with him. He had writer's block… he wanted my take on Richard III, The Scottish Play, As You Like It. That is where Shakespeare stuff happened."
Johnson also had to drop his lucrative speaking engagements such as the three-hour event in 2019, organised by an Indian media group, for which he was paid $239,306. His shtick involves arriving at the last minute, ruffling his famously dishevelled mop, pretending not to know who he is addressing and, usually, bringing down the house.
For now, Johnson appears to be struggling to get by on his annual salary as prime minister of £157,372. He does get to use the flat above Number 10 rent-free, but it is taxable as a benefit in kind. He has to pay for any private entertainment. And his other costs are high. He and his second wife Marina Wheeler, married for 27 years, divorced last year after Johnson started seeing 33-year-old Carrie Symonds, former head of communications for the Conservative party. (They married in May.) Friends of Wheeler, a barrister, strongly contest the idea that she "cleaned out" Johnson in the divorce settlement. "She put her job on hold to become a foreign secretary's wife," says one, referring to Johnson's time at the Foreign Office from 2016-18.
The divorce was far from amicable. "He was constantly talking about how much it cost," says one Downing St insider. Wheeler's friends say she was furious when she learnt that Johnson had bought a $2.3m house with Symonds in Camberwell, south London, before the divorce was finalised. Johnson and Wheeler sold their house in Islington in 2019 for $6.68m and she bought a new place in Bethnal Green. Johnson's remaining property portfolio consists of the full ownership of a Grade II-listed cottage in Thame, Oxfordshire, which he put on the rental market this year at $8476 a month, and a 20 per cent share of the Johnson family's remote Exmoor home.
This was the financial backdrop earlier this year when the so-called Wallpapergate scandal broke, ensnaring both Johnson and Elliot. Symonds wanted to revamp the Downing Street flat. The new decor, including gold wallpaper, would be inspired by the work of eco-interior designer Lulu Lytle. One Downing St staffer says: "Boris would come down and complain about how much it was all going to cost."
Faced with spiralling costs, Johnson turned to Elliot for advice. According to friends, Elliot advised Johnson in February 2020 to simply get a loan to pay for the work. Instead, the prime minister considered setting up a charitable "Downing St trust", but it failed to get off the ground because the flat was considered a private space and therefore ineligible. Elliot, as party co-chair, was notified in October 2020 by Lord Brownlow, a low-key Tory patron of successive prime ministers, that £58,000 would be paid into party coffers "to cover the payments the party has already made on behalf of the soon to be formed Downing Street trust".
The trust was never formed, nor the donation declared, but the Conservative party has insisted that all reportable donations had been "correctly declared". It says the party had "long provided assistance" to serving prime ministers. Dominic Cummings, Johnson's former chief adviser who has waged a campaign of criticism in the media over the past few months, claimed the plan was to "have donors secretly pay for the renovation".
Lord Geidt, Johnson's adviser on standards, ruled in May that the prime minister had not broken any rules but had acted "unwisely" by not trying to find out who originally paid for the refurbishment. In the end, Johnson picked up the tab, stretching his finances further. The Electoral Commission has launched a separate inquiry into the affair. One Tory admirer of Elliot said after the wallpaper scandal: "I suspect he wishes sometimes he hadn't got involved at all. Boris is quite demanding."
In official matters, Elliot has done exactly what Johnson asked him to do: he turned the Conservatives into an extremely well-funded machine that wins elections. In the year running up to Johnson's 2019 victory, the party raised a record $74.5m in "large" donations, well over three times more than the main opposition Labour party.
Central to Elliot's fundraising strategy is networking money to power. Mohamed Amersi, a businessman who has made millions in telecom deals around the world, says he met Elliot in New York. Amersi became a "global elite" member of Quintessentially.
In 2013, Amersi and his partner Nadia flew to Scotland and made their way to Dumfries House, an 18th-century stately home set on 2000 acres. That night, he says he and Nadia dined with the Prince of Wales. "Ben was the one who invited us to come there," says Amersi of his first meeting with the heir to the British throne. It was also Elliot who "started seeking donations from me and Nadia for the Conservative party even before he became chair". Nadia — the Russian-born Nadezhda Rodicheva — gave $498,000 in the run-up to the 2017 election. Another half-million pounds has followed from Amersi since.
That has been enough to buy Amersi membership of the Leaders Group — a longstanding club for Tory donors who enjoy monthly lunches with ministers — but not enough, he says, to join the Advisory Board made up of the highest donors. That club, Amersi says, is "like the very elite Quintessentially clients membership: one needs to cough up $498,000 per annum or be a friend of Ben".
Some senior Tories talk of a "250 club" of donors who have given $498,000 or more, but a party spokesman denied the existence of such a group. Well-placed Conservatives say that "not everyone" on the Advisory Board had given that amount, but that a number had.
The 250 figure certainly features prominently in the recent list of donations to the party. Eight Conservative party donors gave sums of exactly $498,000 in 2020. Three donors have given that specific amount so far in 2021. Those who have given at least that sum in 2020 or 2021 include Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of former Russian minister Vladimir Chernukhin; hedge fund manager Alan Howard; John Gore, a theatre producer, and Rosemary Saïd, wife of Wafic Saïd, the Syrian-born businessman known for his role in the UK-Saudi al-Yamamah arms sale.
The most important donors, according to senior Tories, are tapped on the shoulder by Elliot and asked if they would like to join the Advisory Board, described by one senior Tory as being made up of perhaps a dozen members. A Conservative spokesman confirmed the existence of the Advisory Board but declined to say who was on it. A Tory source says it "meets occasionally and receives political updates".
Elliot's friends say the board existed before as a forum for the party's great and good, but that he had "given it more structure and professionalised it". They also point out that the principle of people paying $99,000 to join the Leaders Group — and thus gain access to ministers — was established long before Elliot arrived in Tory HQ.
However, Elliot has taken the concept to another level. Since December the Advisory Board has spoken with either Johnson or Sunak on a monthly basis. "It's never below that rank," says one person briefed on its activities.
Members are thought to include Lord Anthony Bamford, the digger entrepreneur, at whose factory Johnson launched his 2019 leadership bid. He was unavailable for comment. Others said to be members — Alan Howard and British financier Jamie Reuben — declined to comment.
Some of the biggest donations secured for the party come from property companies, who would be major beneficiaries of Johnson's promise to rip up England's highly restrictive planning laws to allow more housebuilding. Donors with property interests and links to development have given the party at least $35.7m since Johnson became prime minister, according to an FT analysis of donors who gave $199,000 or more.
Stanley Johnson, the prime minister's father, told the FT that a big test was coming for his son over whether he would push for tough new rules to reverse the loss of biodiversity in a government environment bill. Developers would like to rein in the bill. Stanley said his son was "an environmentalist" but he nonetheless feared "the rats have been at" the legislation.
Asked whether developers were lobbying against new safeguards, he said: "Of course. Deep down that's what's going on here. I'm sure that pressure is coming from somewhere." He added that he did not want to insinuate the pressure was coming from existing or potential Tory donors. A Conservative spokesman said: "Government policy is in no way influenced by the donations the party receives. They are entirely separate."
Elliot's ascent to the heights of Conservative party power has come at the same time as a period of turbulence in his private fortunes. Quintessentially has suffered significant losses in recent years and had to be bailed out with loans from its major shareholder, the US fuel-supply conglomerate World Fuel Services, a supplier to the UK Ministry of Defence. Quintessentially says its business is doing better this year.
Elliot has stepped down as a director of Hawthorn Advisers, the lobbying and PR firm he co-founded in 2013. Hawthorn boss John Evans says Elliot "has never been actively involved in the business". But through a trust he still holds a 22 per cent stake in a venture whose recent clients have included a now-banned Chinese tech giant, the chairman of a Russian oligarch's aluminium business and an arm of an Egyptian tycoon's business empire that has given $997,000 to the Tories.
Despite a bruising few months, Elliot is suspected by some to harbour ambitions to go into politics. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the longstanding MP for The Cotswolds, one of the safest Tory seats in England, has accused Elliot of waging a secret campaign to undermine him in order to fight the seat himself at the next election. Elliot has a house in the constituency.
Sir Geoffrey told the FT, "There's plenty of evidence in my constituency that Ben Elliot is behind the scenes attempting to obtain the candidacy of the Cotswolds constituency. And those shenanigans are still going on today. I'm quite bitter about it." A source close to Elliot strongly denies this. "Ben will not stand as a Conservative party candidate at the next election," he says. "He is working tirelessly to support the party in his role as co-chairman.""
Elliot's style of fundraising will continue to attract controversy. Johnson will hope that his old friend can keep the Tory party awash with cash in the run-up to what he hopes will be a second election victory.
As for Johnson, one colleague claims that when he leaves office he "could become the richest prime minister on record, even richer than Blair", thanks to what are likely to be huge speaking fees. "His financial problems will be sorted out in a week after he leaves office," says one cabinet minister. "Theresa May made $997,000 in a year from speaking. I'd pay $997,000 not to hear her speak." The minister adds, "Boris thinks the money problems will sort themselves out. And he's right."
Johnson is also well aware that he is following in illustrious footsteps. David Lough, author of No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money, chronicles how the wartime leader juggled fighting the Nazis with struggling to pay his shirtmaker, his watchmaker and wine merchant, while trying to fund ambitious property refurbishments and fending off publishers clamouring for an overdue book.
At least Johnson does not have to worry about his party's finances. Lough said that, historically, future prime ministers frequently turned to the sons of the wealthy at their old public school — often Eton — to sort out the money. In Johnson's case, his personal financial problems persist, but when it comes to sorting out his party's finances, the prime minister had exactly such a person waiting in the wings. His name is Ben Elliot.
$35.6m Amount that donors with property interests and links to development have given the Conservative party since Johnson became prime minister
$548,000 Annual earnings as a columnist at The Daily Telegraph, penning articles on a weekly basis
$8476 Monthly rental income from Grade II-listed cottage in Thame, Oxfordshire
At least $175,000 Amount Johnson received as an advance for his book 'Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius'
$498,000 Exact amount eight Tory donors gave in 2020
$74.5m Amount the Tory party raised in 'large' donations in the year running up to Johnson's 2019 victory
$5.38m Johnson's outside earnings over his eight years at City Hall
$2.3m Purchase price of Johnson and Symonds' house in Camberwell, south London
$313,842 Prime minister's annual salary
$1,655,245 Amount Johnson earned in his last year as a backbench MP before becoming prime minister
$897,315 Earnings for 21 hours of public speaking in just over seven months in 2018-19
$115,653 Donation from Tory patron Lord Brownlow, allegedly to pay for Downing Street refurbishments.